The attack Monday in New Delhi on an Israeli diplomat’s car — in which the wife of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) representative in India was wounded — apparently represents the latest escalation in the covert war between Israel and Iran.
Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah have been engaged in a hot spy-versus-spy war for years. Now it is getting hotter and threatens to produce a larger conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost little time in blaming the New Delhi attack — as well as a foiled attempt to bomb an Israeli embassy car in Tbilisi, Georgia — on Iran and Hezbollah. The prime minister also linked the Shia duo to failed terror plots in Azerbaijan and Thailand targeting Israelis in the last few months.
The latest attacks came four years after the head of Hezbollah’s terror wing, Imad Mughniyah, was killed in a car bomb in Damascus. Mughniyah had been attacking IDF and other Israeli targets since 1982. He was also linked to the attack on US Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut in 1983 and the bombing of the Khobar Towers US Air Force barracks in 1996.
Hezbollah has promised to get revenge for Mughniyah’s death since his assassination and made several foiled attempts already to do so. Israel has been on guard every anniversary since his death.
The latest attack in New Delhi was probably more than just a revenge operation for Mughniyah. Tehran blames Israel for a series of attacks on its nuclear scientists over the last two years as well as for explosions and computer viruses that have attacked its nuclear infrastructure.
Reliable news stories have reported that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad has been working with a dissident Iranian terror group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, to target scientists and facilities inside Iran. Israeli leaders including Netanyahu have made it clear that they intend to use sabotage to try to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel has long used covert operations to kill terrorists and sabotage enemy weapons programs. Israeli spies sent letter bombs to German scientists in Cairo sixty years ago, and Israeli spies and commandos — including Defense Minister Ehud Barak — have been tracking down terrorist leaders and killing them from Norway to Lebanon and Tunisia for decades. Of course, the United States uses drones and SEALs to kill terrorists from Pakistan to Yemen.
For Hezbollah and Iran, the IDF representative in New Delhi was probably a very attractive target, as Israel and India have become close military allies. Since 1991 Israel has sold India almost $9 billion worth of weapons, and India has become Israel’s largest export market for arms. Israel is India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia. India in turn has launched Israeli spy satellites into space on Indian missiles — satellites that regularly monitor Iranian nuclear facilities.
India may be balking at cutting off economic ties to Iran these days, but it has a very solid military relationship with Israel that Hezbollah would see as an appropriate target for Mughniyah’s revenge and more.
The danger of spy wars is that they can get out of hand. Not only do innocents get killed in the crossfire, the conflict can create a casus belli for a real shooting war. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war had its origins in terror attacks on Israel, which led to retaliatory strikes on Syria and Jordan that escalated into a crisis.
It is hard to keep conflict contained and it is easy to use a terror incident to justify a war. The 1982 IDF invasion of Lebanon that gave birth to Hezbollah was in response to an Iraqi-backed Palestinian terror attack on the Israeli ambassador in London.
The US intelligence community has recently warned that Iran can launch terror attacks inside the United States. That is a real and present danger. Both Iran and Hezbollah have sought such a capability inside the US for years. Hezbollah has a track record of recruiting support cells in Lebanese émigré communities from West Africa to South America.
Should Israel decide to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will be certain to cite Tehran’s long history of involvement in terrorism as one justification for war. It will probably simultaneously attack Hezbollah in Lebanon in order to pre-empt Hezbollah’s enormous rocket and missile arsenal from targeting Haifa, Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem — all of which are now in range of Mughniyah’s successors thanks to arms deals he negotiated with Iran and Syria after the 2006 war.
A much better way to neuter Hezbollah and set back Iranian ambitions is available now in Syria. The former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, has written that the Syrian civil war now offers the chance to oust the Alawite regime in Damascus that has been Iran’s key ally for thirty years and was Tehran’s partner in Mughniyah’s carnage. He is right.
A carefully organized campaign to mobilize the Syrian opposition based around Turkish leadership has a chance at toppling Bashar Assad. Already the Syrian city where Iranian Revolutionary Guards used to train and arm Hezbollah, Zabadani, has fallen into rebel hands. But this is a tough mission given the ruthlessness of the Assad government and the understandable reluctance of the international community to use force to fight it.
So the terror war between Israel and Iran is likely to escalate. If Israel starts a war with Iran and Lebanon, America will almost certainly be drawn in. The Obama administration has rightly been urging Israel to give sanctions and sabotage more time to work, but the dynamics are pushing for another Middle East conflict which will be very hard to contain.
Bruce Riedel is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A specialist on the Middle East, he served in the CIA for thirty years.